Thursday, May 8, 2008

Jimmy Carter Speaks Out

A human rights crime
The world must stop standing idle while the people of Gaza are treated with such cruelty
Jimmy Carter
The Guardian
Thursday May 8 2008

The world is witnessing a terrible human rights crime in Gaza, where a million and a half human beings are being imprisoned with almost no access to the outside world. An entire population is being brutally punished.

This gross mistreatment of the Palestinians in Gaza was escalated dramatically by Israel, with United States backing, after political candidates representing Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Authority parliament in 2006. The election was unanimously judged to be honest and fair by all international observers.

Israel and the US refused to accept the right of Palestinians to form a unity government with Hamas and Fatah and now, after internal strife, Hamas alone controls Gaza. Forty-one of the 43 victorious Hamas candidates who lived in the West Bank have been imprisoned by Israel, plus an additional 10 who assumed positions in the short-lived coalition cabinet.

Regardless of one's choice in the partisan struggle between Fatah and Hamas within occupied Palestine, we must remember that economic sanctions and restrictions on the supply of water, food, electricity and fuel are causing extreme hardship among the innocent people in Gaza, about one million of whom are refugees.

Israeli bombs and missiles periodically strike the area, causing high casualties among both militants and innocent women and children. Prior to the highly publicised killing of a woman and her four children last week, this pattern had been illustrated by a report from B'Tselem, the leading Israeli human rights organisation, which stated that 106 Palestinians were killed between February 27 and March 3. Fifty-four of them were civilians, and 25 were under 18 years of age.

On a recent trip through the Middle East, I attempted to gain a better understanding of the crisis. One of my visits was to Sderot, a community of about 20,000 in southern Israel that is frequently struck by rockets fired from nearby Gaza. I condemned these attacks as abominable acts of terrorism, since most of the 13 victims during the past seven years have been non-combatants.

Subsequently, I met with leaders of Hamas - a delegation from Gaza and the top officials in Damascus. I made the same condemnation to them, and urged that they declare a unilateral ceasefire or orchestrate with Israel a mutual agreement to terminate all military action in and around Gaza for an extended period.

They responded that such action by them in the past had not been reciprocated, and they reminded me that Hamas had previously insisted on a ceasefire throughout Palestine, including Gaza and the West Bank, which Israel had refused. Hamas then made a public proposal of a mutual ceasefire restricted to Gaza, which the Israelis also rejected.

There are fervent arguments heard on both sides concerning blame for a lack of peace in the Holy Land. Israel has occupied and colonised the Palestinian West Bank, which is approximately a quarter the size of the nation of Israel as recognised by the international community. Some Israeli religious factions claim a right to the land on both sides of the Jordan river, others that their 205 settlements of some 500,000 people are necessary for "security".

All Arab nations have agreed to recognise Israel fully if it will comply with key United Nations resolutions. Hamas has agreed to accept any negotiated peace settlement between the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, provided it is approved in a referendum of the Palestinian people.

This holds promise of progress, but despite the brief fanfare and positive statements at the peace conference last November in Annapolis, the process has gone backwards. Nine thousand new Israeli housing units have been announced in Palestine; the number of roadblocks within the West Bank has increased; and the stranglehold on Gaza has been tightened.

It is one thing for other leaders to defer to the US in the crucial peace negotiations, but the world must not stand idle while innocent people are treated cruelly. It is time for strong voices in Europe, the US, Israel and elsewhere to speak out and condemn the human rights tragedy that has befallen the Palestinian people.

· Jimmy Carter, a former president of the United States, is founder of The Carter Center

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Behind the Violence, the "Real" History

One home, two histories
The past of one property in Jerusalem symbolises today's divisions between Palestinians and Israelis
Rory McCarthy in Jerusalem
The Guardian
Tuesday May 6 2008

The two-storey house is built from hefty blocks of golden stone. Tall palm trees tower over the front garden, giving shade from the burning summer sun. There is a green, metal double gate, guarded on each side by stone pillars adorned with handsome metal lanterns. It is known as the Hallak house and it sits in a smart district of west Jerusalem known as Talbieh.

This is a house of competing histories: a story of flight and dispossession and a story of immigration and achievement; the unresolved tragedy of the Palestinian refugee crisis and the remarkable rise of the Israeli state built on the ruins of the second world war.

On Thursday, Israel celebrates its 60th anniversary with speeches, military parades, exhibitions and sports competitions. The true story of the rival legacies of what happened in 1948 lies in the history of buildings such as the Hallak house and in the lives of people such as Wilhelmine Baramki and Reuven Tsur, a Palestinian and an Israeli, born within two years of each other, whose families have both called this house their home.

In 1948, Baramki was 13 years old, a child in a respectable Christian Palestinian family from Jerusalem. In the early 1930s the family built the house, and named it after her grandfather Hanna Hallak. As today, it was divided into apartments. Her grandparents lived downstairs to the right and at least three uncles and two aunts lived in the other apartments. Other rooms were rented out to tenants.

Baramki, now 73, lived with her parents a few minutes away in another Christian Palestinian district of the city, Baqa, but she has memories of summers spent idly with her grandmother Farideh and her uncles and aunts in Hallak house.

"There were fruit trees, a nice apple tree. There was a swing where we used to play. There was an open veranda where we used to sit with all flowers around," she said. "Those memories were something for us. On Palm Sunday they used to pick all the nice flowers they had to make our palms. We used to love going there."

Then came the brewing conflict in the months after the UN's failed attempt to partition British Mandate Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. One spring day, Jewish officials drove through Talbieh with a loudspeaker instructing the Palestinians to leave their homes immediately - there had been a shooting nearby.
Baramki's widowed grandmother and her uncles and aunts grabbed a bag and left quickly, seeking refuge in the family's other home in Baqa. They briefly returned but the shootings and bombings continued. Once they were shot at on a bus.

"Every night there were bombings, every day it was almost the same. My father told my mother: 'We can't keep going. We'll be shot one day,'" she said. They left to stay with another aunt who lived in the Old City, in east Jerusalem. "Just for a few days we thought."

The war raged on and eventually they took refuge from the fighting by crossing into Lebanon. Before they left, her mother went back to the house in Baqa and with a maid she washed and ironed the laundry and tidied it away for their return. They locked the doors, carefully marking which key fitted which lock. It was the last time the family houses were theirs.

In Lebanon they rented a house in the mountains and as the war escalated, weeks turned into months. A year and a half later they finally returned to Jerusalem, at least to the Jordanian-held east of the city. The west, including both Talbieh and Baqa, was cut off by a ceasefire line and was in the hands of the nascent Israeli state.

They were forbidden to enter. The Israeli state deemed them "absentee" property owners and their houses, like the houses of nearly all the other 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced out in 1948, were given to Jewish Israeli families, often to newly arrived immigrants, survivors of the horror of the camps in Europe.

And so it remained until 1967. On June 4 that year, Wilhelmine Khoury, as she was then, married another Christian Palestinian, George Baramki, the son of a well-known architect who had also lost properties and land in Jerusalem, Jaffa and elsewhere in 1948.

The following morning, June 5, the couple were sitting aboard a plane on the runway at Amman airport in Jordan waiting to head off on honeymoon. They chose a bad day. Before dawn Israel's air force launched a devastating pre-emptive strike on Egypt, the start of the Six Day War that was to reshape the Middle East. The pilot ordered the passengers off the plane and out of the airport and the Baramkis left their luggage and raced home.

Despite the fighting, they stayed on in east Jerusalem desperate not to lose another property to another war. Israel was quickly victorious, fatefully beginning the occupation that continues today of Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. In Jerusalem, Israel seized and later annexed the east.

That meant two things to the Baramkis: they could now, for the first time, go back to visit their family homes from 1948, including Hallak house. It also left them refugees in their own city, for they had no right to claim back what was lost. "We always had hope, but nothing doing," she said. "Now we are present-absent. We are present here to pay taxes and everything, but absent to get back our property. This is the rule that they have," she said.

They still occasionally drive over to the west and look at their former homes. "It was difficult the first time," said Wilhelmine. "Then you get used to it. But it doesn't mean we have forgotten our claim to our houses and our land, too."

The second half of the story of the house began 75 years ago and 1,200 miles away. Reuven Tsur grew up in a Hungarian-speaking Jewish family in what was then Transylvania and is today the Romanian city of Oradea. During the war, the family managed to escape the ghetto into which they had been corralled and they fled eventually to Budapest after his father, a prominent and successful baker, had survived 16 months in one labour camp and a brief arrest by the Gestapo.

His parents had for years been planning to emigrate, with their hearts set on Australia. Eventually, and in large part down to the cajoling of their son Reuven, they flew to Haifa, new immigrants to a new Israel.

"We saw Haifa at night. We saw the lights," said Tsur. "We were driving through the empty streets of Haifa and my father saw the signs on the closed shops and the signs were in Hebrew. For my father Hebrew was associated with the synagogue and he told my mother: 'Look how many synagogues.'"

The family were taken to a camp for newly arrived immigrants and soon Tsur, who was just 16, was sent to a kibbutz, an ambition he'd harboured for years.

His father set up a bakery and Tsur went to study English and Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He became a teacher in the city and eventually a professor of Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University, where he was a leader in the field of cognitive poetics.

In 1957 he married Ilana, who was born near Tel Aviv. The couple began to look for a house, somewhere with large rooms where Ilana could run her physical education classes. One day an agent showed them a small apartment on the ground floor of a large and impressive Arab house in a street now called Hovevei Zion (the Lovers of Zion). It was the Hallak house.

"I only saw the palm trees from the outside and I said: 'This must be a mistake. It couldn't be that beautiful,'" said Tsur. "It was empty and nobody wanted it."

They got a good deal, buying the apartment for 12,000 Israeli lirot, worth the approximate equivalent of £25,000 today, from two Jewish landlords. The three-room apartment they had bought was part of the larger flat in which Baramki's grandparents had been living a decade earlier.

The Tsurs admit that they didn't think of its former occupants. Their neighbours were other Jewish immigrants from Europe and the Arab world who had poured into the new, fast-growing state of Israel. The Palestinians were long gone.

Then came the 1967 war, and Israel's capture of east Jerusalem. "Sure enough after a few weeks comes a very prominent gentlemen wearing an English suit and he said: 'OK, my parents lived here and I would like to see the apartment,'" said Ilana. The gentleman was almost certainly Wilhelmine's late uncle, Victor Khoury. Ilana showed him around, answering his questions about how much they had paid for the flat and what had happened to the grapefruit tree in the back garden.

"Emotionally I felt awkward. I had no time, I was working at that moment and I couldn't say I was very nice," she said. After the visit, she had the front door lock changed but she has to this day kept the original key still attached to her key ring. There were more visits from the Khoury family in the months and years ahead, all well-mannered and the two families, Israeli and Palestinian, sat and drank tea in the house they both called home.

When the Baramkis and the Tsurs talk of the future they share a striking pessimism about the prospects of peace. The Tsurs argue, like many Israelis, that the Palestinians would not stick to any peace agreement that is made. The Baramkis argue, like many Palestinians, that Israel is more interested in colonising the land with settlements than in striking a genuine peace deal.

The Tsurs say they would give up their apartment in Hallak house if it truly meant peace would come and if they were given a comparable apartment in return, an offer rarely heard in today's Israel and perhaps shaped by their own so far fruitless attempts to claim compensation from the Romanian government for Tsur's family house in Oradea, which was confiscated by the Communist regime. They strongly believe that financial compensation alone is enough and that allowing the Palestinians who lost their homes in 1948 to reclaim them is unacceptable.

"There seems to be a big difference between them and us because we don't want to go back and we don't want to have anything of it," said Reuven. "We want to disconnect and they don't want to disconnect."

And on the other side of the city, the feeling is completely the reverse. "It's our land," said Wilhelmine. "We have a right to come back to our home."